With planes grounded and country borders closed, most of us have become accustomed to the confines of our home. A trip to the living room offers an exciting change of scenery, and the cuisine typical of this region is developing in new and curious ways with each day that passes since the last grocery run.
As one of the many Australians who were living abroad when Covid-19 hit, and subsequently made the tough decision to return home, I’m turning to my screen to help satisfy my craving to travel. Though I won’t be road-tripping around the Scottish Highlands this spring or popping over to Greece in the summer, series such as Netflix’s Street Food help to ease my disappointment and remind me of the world outside the Melbourne suburb I live in.
The latest project from creator David Gelb (Chef’s Table, Jiro Dreams of Sushi), Street Food takes Gelb’s genre of food documentary out of fine-dining restaurants and on to the sidewalk . Each of the nine episodes focuses on a new city, and explores its history and culture through the stories of three to four local street food vendors.
In season one we visit Asia. First up is Bangkok, where we meet Jay Fai (real name Supinya Junsuta) – chef and owner of the city’s first street food stall to be awarded a Michelin star. She’s in her mid 70s and donning a black apron, ski goggles and a beanie in the thick Thailand heat while she flips and swirls a searing hot wok full of pad kee mao (drunken noodles).
While we’re transfixed by her movements, journalist and food blogger Chawadee “Chow” Nualkhair tells us the Thai government has described vendors like Jay Fai as “leeches” and is restricting the space allowed to them, despite the culture they’re supporting being “the ultimate unifier” for such a diversified city. She tells us: “Street food is one of the few things left that glues people together.”
The late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations stressed the role street food has in preserving cultural identity, and this sentiment is repeatedly echoed by the subjects in each chapter of Street Food. In Osaka, where most food stalls have been forced to move inside, Toyo of Izakaya Toyo believes that “making people happy is more important than making money” and has done so with his charismatic service for more than 30 years. In Delhi, where most people rely on street food for their meals, you’re “sampling history” by eating dishes made from the same flavours as the vendors’ ancestors.
In each city you meet inspiring and passionate characters, discover new dishes and cuisines, and learn how the two have influenced each other over time to create a rich sense of cultural identity specific to that city or region. This week I’ve returned to the delightful sensory overload which is Bangkok, gotten to know an over 100-year-old vendor specialising in gudeg (jackfruit stew) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and jostled through the crowd at Seoul’s Gwangjang Market.
It isn’t easy having a trip cancelled or seeing your plan for 2020 fall apart (or “put on hold”, if I’m being optimistic), but living in an age where we can continue to learn about and be inspired by different cultures from the safety of our home makes it that much easier. Even if it means my list of places to visit will be even longer than it already was when I went into isolation.
• Street Food: Asia is now streaming on Netflix in Australia